Dressed in black, Sunil Khilnani walks in. His recent visit to Delhi was a blur of interviews. His latest book Incarnations—its thickness rivals Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy—chronicles 50 Indian lives, from the Buddha to Malik Amber, who came as a slave from Ethiopia and then garnered his own army in India.
Curiously, Jawaharlal Nehru is left out “to allow space to bring in a few others who should be more widely known”. “A choice with which I think... Nehru would have agreed,” he writes in the introduction. But, there is Manto, Guru Nanak, Tagore, Gandhi, Panini, Ambedkar, Mirabai and Annie Besant.
But, the book itself—for which he sets out to educate himself and travels the length and breadth of the country—is a bit like Nehru’s Discovery of India. “This was really an experiment in self education,’’ he says. “It was about wanting to learn what I did not know very much about—archaeology, epigraphy, mathematics or Sanskrit grammar. Who is in and who is out is an invitation for a conversation. It does not close the door, it opens the door. It isn’t like Noah’s Ark where the 50 get on board and we sail off. That is why it is not called the makers of India. It is 50 different strands and threads which are valuable to us today.”
Born from podcasts which he did for BBC Radio 4, Incarnations takes forward the radio version of these sketches. Radio was not easy, he admits. For a career teacher, that admission seems a little odd. “When you teach you can see, you know the kind of effect you have. [On air] you have to find a way of talking which is not lecturing because people are listening in bed or with earphones in intimate spaces. When I listen, I hate my voice,” he says laughing.
Constantly warned by BBC that he did not have a captive audience and that he had to ensure that people do not switch off, Khilnani uses music, composer Talvin Singh and live sounds to ensure that listeners get a flavour of the person he is eloquently trying to bring alive. The toughest to do? Panini and Gandhi, he says immediately. “Panini because you only have the Ashtadhyayi, and Gandhi because you have hundreds of volumes and biographies,” he says.
The choices are interesting. So, while Nehru is left out, Jinnah, often portrayed as his nemesis in history, does find a place. “He is part of India’s history, except for one year of his life,’’ he says. “He wanted to become an actor. And, there is a way in which this is manifest in his career. He takes on a role and he plays it to the hilt. Another way of describing it is that he is a lawyer who takes on a brief. But, he is an actor who takes on a speech.” The statesmanlike speech he delivered post-independence on Pakistan Radio has subsequently disappeared from its archives.
Khilnani's 50 are shorn of “the fine brocade of veneration’’ that Indians tend to wrap their heroes in. “I think we need to decompress,” says Khilnani. “Indian history does not belong to any political party, any government, it belongs to all of us. I mean anyone, anywhere in the world. Whereas most nationalists fear diversity and plurality because it challenges a singular definition, I think that is what is our strength.”
Incarnations: India in 50 Lives
By Sunil Khilnani
Published by Allen Lane
Price Rs 999; pages 656